The climate change debate, live

Early last week, while in Toronto, I happened into a ticket to one of the Munk Debates . This series, sponsored by Canadian businessman Peter Munk and organized by a local Toronto thinker, Rudyard Griffiths, aims to explore the looming challenges of our day with good old fashioned debates. They’ve got a high reputation, so I perked up when I heard that the debate scheduled for last Tuesday was going to center on climate change.

Specifically, the resolution to be debated was the following:

> Be it resolved climate change is mankind’s defining crisis and deserves a commensurate response.

But what really caught my attention was the panel of debaters. On the Yes side were George Monbiot, an environmental activist and journalist who writes for the Guardian in the UK, and Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party in Canada. On the No side were Bjorn Lomborg, thorn in the side of climate change activists everywhere and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist among other titles, and Sir Nigel Lawson, who served in the UK government as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher, but basically makes his living these days as a climate change denier. Quite a match up, no?

I’ll spare you the blow by blow and cut to the chase: the No team won. God, it was depressing to watch. On the way in the approximately 1,100 attendees had voted for or against the resolution, with 61% voting Yes and 39% voting No. And on the way out, only 53% voted Yes, with 47% voting No. I suppose it could have been worse, but it was painful all the same, and made me understand much better the recent polls showing that fewer Americans (and presumably Canadians) believe that climate change is an imminent threat, or that it’s caused by human activity.

Lord Lawson came across as a crank, though an educated one. I don’t imagine he changed many minds. And Elizabeth May was a train wreck, despite a strong start, getting so flustered at one point that she actually had her microphone turned off by the organizers to prevent her yelling over her opponents’ turn to speak. That’s hardly the kind of steady confidence we’d all like to see in our environmental leaders.

So what it came down to was this: Bjorn Lomborg told the audience that the developed world can do more good by investing in foreign aid now rather than investing in efforts to combat climate change that won’t bear fruit for decades, as if that were in fact the choice we face. And George Monbiot resorted to telling tales of drought and desperation in sub-Saharan Africa, repeatedly making the point that it’s those who have done the least to cause global warming who are doomed to suffer the most from it.

Lomborg’s stance is dishonest on the face of it, because the developed world can and should do more than it does in terms of direct foreign aid or help for developing nations, regardless of whether it takes action versus climate change or not. It’s a false choice he presents, but boy does he present it well, judging by the knowing chuckles that rippled through the audience as he made his case.

I can see its appeal, though. There is something seductive in hearing that as a society our spending to battle climate change would have to come directly from the mouths of starving babes in Africa. I mean, what heart of stone would support that? The premise falls apart upon even the lightest reflection (clearly, we have a moral responsibility to do both), but it’s scarily plausible in the moment. And Lomborg, in his jeans and T-shirt and easy manner, is a scarily plausible messenger.

But it was Monbiot’s argument that finally clinched the loss for his side, I’m afraid. Not that I think he did a bad job arguing his case. It’s worse than that. You see, he made a carefully crafted plea to save those in the developing world from climate change, as a moral imperative. But the more he hammered home how the developing world would suffer so much more than the developed world, the easier it became for the audience to think that perhaps the developed world wouldn’t suffer such terrible consequences from climate change after all. Maybe it would be like all those other horrible things that happen in Africa, that don’t much affect North America, or North Americans.

And that’s pretty much what tore it, from my point of view. Because if you can convince people in the developed world that climate change is only really going to affect the part of humanity that lives in Africa, or Bangladesh, or even the Maldives for that matter, and not the part that lives in London or Chicago, well it’s going to seem a lot less like the defining challenge of humanity for an audience in Toronto, isn’t it? And the debate goes to the No side.

Watch for this argument from Republicans against the climate change bill this spring. It’s pernicious, but as I saw with my own eyes and ears at last week’s debate, it’s effective.

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  1. Martin Turner - December 9, 2009

    Technical point: Lawson was Chancellor under Thatcher, and is an old style Conservative. All the main UK parties are now aiming to work to mitigate climate change (words more than deeds).
    The debate needs to be won, but remember science has limits (viz the 90 y old guy who smoked 40 cigs/day all his life and never got cancer). The issue is to claim beyond reasonable doubt and ask for the plan B solution. Also worth asking for affiliations/donations from big energy to be declared at the start of debates.
    That said, Monbiot generally debates well, but I agree that images of flooded London/New York/New Orleans 2 cut it better for most folk.

  2. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff - December 9, 2009

    I’m always amazed that Lomborg gets away with his false choice… the cost of saving lives due to bad water, malaria, etc. is so low that it seems transparently obvious that money is not the obstacle there: the problem is more the impression that we don’t have good ways of addressing those problems, partly because of bad governance in poor countries. So to argue from the fact that poverty still exists in third world countries that we don’t have the money to address climate change is just ludicrous. When Lomborg makes the same argument against going to war somewhere, he’ll have a little more credibility in my book.

  3. Drew Fenwick - December 9, 2009

    I watched as well.
    This is what I took this away from that debate:
    1. Clearly three of the four of them including the softspoken sophistry of Lomborg, pointed out that climate change is indeed an alarming problem that needs to be addressed.
    2. The participants were successful in their efforts to illustrate that definitively the science is clearly falling on the side of the fence that climate change is in the vast majority of the opinion of those working on the science; very real, man-made,and advancing at a rate that is clearly alarming.
    3. That the answer rests with all of us and that a simple effort to do a little recycling is not enough – our dependancy on fossil fuels will be our demise and that the majority of the users of this resource are doing so at the peril of the have not states.
    4. That economic address of the problem is the real motivation behind any solution and that unless this climate change problem is framed as an economic opportunity to succeed and make profit upon – the major players won’t play and the solution rests with emphemoral technology that may or may not exist.
    May was not a trainwreck – to the contrary – she was the one who was putting light on the “climategate” – the supposed misrepresentation of climate facts the Con side was using to undermine the science. Lomborg cut her off did his little sophist’s dance. I would have been annoyed at being cut off in the middle of my point by a cheap debating ploy as well.
    To her credit she had actually read all of the salient material and emails – something the journalists and the debaters clearly had not- and that legitimate work had been compromised by misrepresentation of the facts quoted out of context. (Like that never happens in the real world.)Resulting in the allegations of misrepresntation of science fact that Lord Lawson had concentrated on as his tenant arguement.

  4. Leslie Garrett - December 9, 2009

    I confess that I, too, found the “no” side persuasive…but for the fact that I, far more than the average citizen, know the peer-reviewed science about climate change having researched/written a book.
    So while I could easily dismiss much of the “no” side’s arguments, most people could not. The media has provided such a legitimacy to climate denial that those hearing it don’t recognize it as quackery…or red herring, etc.
    Al Gore recently pointed out that 15% of Americans believe that the moon landing was staged…yet mainstream media isn’t giving those “deniers” the same legitimacy.
    The science is in. Regardless of the debate’s win/loss, there is no other acceptable answer than “yes”.

  5. Chad - December 9, 2009

    Lomborg is wrong, in two fundamental ways, and anyone going into a debate with him should be loaded with facts that specifically counter his arguments. His two core flaws are:
    1: Cost-benefit analysis simply does not work on long time scales, because the uncertainties utterly dwarf the data. One of the biggest failings is the discount rate (how much less a dollar next year is worth than a dollar today). This is actually the key difference between the conclusions of someone like Stern and someone like Lomborg: Stern picks a low discount rate like 2%, while Lomborg likes studies that choose 4-5%. This implies that Stern will find that costs today that provide benefits in the future can be pretty good deals, while Lomborg will always find that spending today will almost never pay off in the future. Note that the difference between a 2% and 5% discount rate implies about a ten-fold difference after 100 years! Similarly, throughout the calculations, many other ideas, such as growth rates, population growth, etc have to be extrapolated…resulting in the same kind of massive variability. If you go read some of the published papers by Tol, one of Lomborg’s favorites, you find things like (paraphrased) “The optimal price for a ton of carbon has been found to be anywhere from $2 to $300, with an average of $87 and a standard deviation of $120.” What the heck are we supposed to conclude from that, other than that economics are just guessing? Also point out to Lomborg and his buddies that over 90% of American economists agree with C&T or a carbon tax (from a recent usatoday poll).
    The other fundamental flaw is that he confuses charity with responsibility. Everything else on his “Copenhagen Consensus” list is an outright charity. We are not responsible for AIDS or a lack of micronutrients in the diet of poor Africans. We ARE responsible for climate change, and therefore have a much higher order responsibility to fight it. The idea that money spent on climate change could be interchanged with purely charitable dollars is outright silly. It is completely politically viable to pass C&T, costing us 2% of GDP. It is utterly inconcievable that we would pass a law diverting that money to the poor parts of the world. The real choice is between C&T, and more SUVs, McMansions, and cheap crap from China.

  6. Editor - December 10, 2009

    Thanks for catching the Thatcher mistake. Fixed!

  7. Ian - December 10, 2009

    If we stopped calling it Global Warming (and all the “controversy” as to whether it’s man made) and instead everyone called the issue Global Pollution, it would be much harder for politicians to say “I’m for global pollution”.

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